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A journey continues: migrants reflect one year after being flown to Martha's Vineyard

Carlos Luzardo sits on the front steps of his home in the Boston suburbs to drink freshly-prepared coffee, on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. Luzardo is one of the 49 migrants that were flown to Martha’s Vineyard in 2022.
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Carlos Luzardo sits on the front steps of his home in the Boston suburbs, on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. Luzardo is one of the 49 migrants that were flown to Martha’s Vineyard in 2022.

A year ago, 49 migrants arrived unexpectedly on Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy island community off the Massachusetts coast. Immigration advocates called it a cruel political stunt, but it has surprisingly created a legal advantage that some of the migrants might be able to use to remain in the United States.

Among them was Carlos Luzardo, who worked seven years as a barber after moving to Colombia from his native Venezuela. After living through a political crisis and then economic upheaval, he sold his business and decided to migrate to the U.S.

“It was a difficult decision,” he said earlier this month, speaking through an interpreter.

In the last year, the stocky, gregarious 25-year-old has been slowly building a new client base in the kitchen of his apartment in a Boston suburb. To earn more money, he works in a salon washing hair, waxing eyebrows, and simply talking with people. “I spend an hour with them, fixing them up. And just like that, they find me endearing. I’m not sure why,” he added with a smile.

Luzardo recently bought a clippers and scissors to cut hair. He is currently working in a salon, but hopes to be a barber with his own clients soon.
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Luzardo recently bought a clippers and scissors to cut hair. He is currently working in a salon, but hopes to be a barber with his own clients soon.

Luzardo takes home about $600 a month. It’s all under the table while he awaits legal work authorization. But he’s been able to buy a pair of clippers and good scissors, while helping to support his mother and girlfriend back in South America.

“[I’ve] sent a little to my family,” he said, “not [as much as] I want to, but I have helped them.”

The migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard, most originally from Venezuela, say they were tricked into boarding planes in Texas under a false promise of expedited work papers and housing. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has since taken credit for what he’s called a “voluntary” relocation. Many of the migrants, Luzardo among them, have painted a very different picture.

Arriving on Martha's Vineyard

When the migrants disembarked the two planes that brought them to Martha’s Vineyard, Luzardo said, they were almost immediately left alone to wander.

But islanders, after gathering enough information to realize these people needed help, quickly jumped in.

Leaders from St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Edgartown offered two buildings as shelters. One housed men, the other women and children. High school students studying AP Spanish started translating. Beds, food, and toys were made available, then even more: access to a dentist, to lawyers, to soccer balls.

Amidst the frenzy of media coverage that sprang up around them, many of the migrants started sharing their stories with volunteers and reporters. They said they’d been told they were going to Boston or New York, among other places, that were set up to receive them. When they realized this wasn’t true, they said they felt lied to, duped, used.

“From the beginning I knew this was something sponsored by the government, but it was something that was not right,” Luzardo said. “But I didn’t react against it because I saw how well we were being treated and cared for.”

Many migrants were still processing these feelings when they voluntarily left the island and were transported to dorms at Joint Base Cape Cod, where Massachusetts officials concluded there would be more infrastructure in place to accommodate them.

Carlos Luzardo holds a keepsake rock from Martha’s Vineyard.
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Carlos Luzardo holds a keepsake rock from Martha’s Vineyard in his home in a Boston suburb one year after he arrived on the island.

Almost immediately, critics accused Republicans involved in the flights of violating human trafficking laws. Law enforcement officials in Texas, Massachusetts, and elsewhere took notice.

Legal Situation for Migrants

“There are at least three investigations going on into [the migrants’] plight,” said Muzaffar Chishti of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

He said millions of Venezuelans fleeing their homes have filed asylum claims in the U.S. But in a twisted kind of irony, the migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard are not only able to apply for asylum, but also a special kind of visa, called a U Visa, that could secure their spot as permanent residents.

U Visas are reserved for victims of certain crimes who help law enforcement in their investigations.

“The sheriff of Texas has this investigation about whether these people were criminally abducted to the United States,” Chishti said. “That’s enough predicate for a U Visa.”

Luzardo’s lawyer, Stephanie Marzouk, said she is pursuing that approach for him.

“[The migrants] believed that they were going to one place, and in fact, they were sent to a totally different place for a political stunt,” Marzouk said. “So that's a crime that these people had committed against them. And there are visas for people who are victims of certain crimes in the U.S. and who aid in the prosecution of those crimes.”

As Marzouk and Chishti said, a significant benefit for Luzardo is that it doesn’t matter whether the investigations result in any convictions. Their mere fact is enough for him to receive a U Visa.

Ultimately, the pair agreed, the men, women, and children flown to Martha’s Vineyard have stronger cases than most migrants now in the United States.

Also of note, Chishti said, the Martha’s Vineyard migrants get to file their claims not in Texas where they crossed the border, and where there are large numbers of applicants, but in Massachusetts.

“[It’s] a reasonably immigrant-friendly jurisdiction where there's a lot of lawyer support and a lot of political support,” Chishti said.

Luzardo's Long Journey

Luzardo said he left Colombia for the United States on July 16, 2022, embarking on a harrowing journey full of violence and chaos that left him with virtually nothing.

“I carried what I had mostly in my mind. And I was determined to make it out,” he said.

On the first part of the journey, Luzardo said, he passed through the Darién Gap, a dangerous rainforest that straddles Colombia and Panama. He badly injured his knee, but continued on.

Over the next few months, he said, he traveled through eight countries. He was robbed and lied to. He narrowly avoided poisonous spiders, kidnapping, and death, on multiple occasions. He said he watched women get attacked and a man stabbed to death.

Carlos Luzardo stands in the doorway of his apartment on Sept. 12, 2023. Luzardo was one of 49 migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard a year ago.
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Carlos Luzardo stands in the doorway of his apartment on Sept. 12, 2023. Luzardo was one of 49 migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard a year ago.

Finally he crossed the U.S. border into Texas penniless, with three items: his cell phone, its charger, and the wallet that held his identification card.Shortly after, he found himself at a shelter in San Antonio, where another migrant approached him with high hopes.

“I befriended this guy who said, ‘You know, there's this woman who I heard helps people find a shelter state.’”

Luzardo said the woman, named Perla, offered him pizza and a few nights at a hotel before giving him a paper to sign. (The woman has since been identified as Perla Huerta, a former U.S. Army medic, who has been named in a federal class-action lawsuit filed in Massachusetts on behalf of the migrants that also seeks damages against DeSantis. The case is pending.)

“It was this sort of authorization that we had to sign where we had to basically affirm that we had accepted this arrangement.”

But Luzardo said he didn’t understand what it meant. The next day she told him to be ready to go to the airport.

Immigration advocates say it’s almost impossible to understand why a person would willingly board a plane with so little information, without understanding the desperation that person was feeling. Luzardo said he believed he had to accept help whenever it was offered because that was the only way he’d survived up until that point.

Migrant Flights, Bus Rides Continue

Both DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have offered migrants free rides from border towns to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and several other places far from the nation’s southern border since last year. All the destinations are led by Democratic politicians.

Until recently, the federal government was in charge of making all big-picture immigration decisions in this country, Chisti said. But now, things are different.

“It’s state versus state. It's not the federal government versus the state government. That’s a completely new chapter,” he said. “And historians of federalism will be looking at it for a very long time.”
Chisti also pointed out that the governors involved in shipping migrants away are announced or potential candidates for the presidency.

“To do this a year before a general election is not lost on anyone,” Chisti said. “I think, again, it is a subchapter, which we haven't seen before.”

Luzardo Looks Ahead

It will be a long time before Luzardo knows whether he gets the U Visa or asylum. He’s applied for both.

So he finds himself doing what he can to stay busy. He wakes up early to drink Colombian coffee then takes three buses to work, chatting with the Spanish-speaking bus driver. He brings breakfast for his coworkers, who like bread with ham and cheese.

“I always buy food for everyone,” he said.

Carlos Luzardo prepares coffee in his home in a Boston suburb.
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Carlos Luzardo prepares coffee in his home in a Boston suburb.

In the evenings, Luzardo works on himself. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, he goes to English class. On Thursdays, he has therapy.

Finally, after video games and calls to loved ones, he goes to sleep at about 9 p.m., tired from long days of acclimation.

All of this — including the apartment — has been made possible by funds and services arranged by Jewish Family Service of Metrowest, a nonprofit based in Framingham, Massachusetts. The organization got involved soon after the migrants arrived at Joint Base Cape Cod. It has provided the same benefits to four other migrants, including Luzardo’s roommate and three other people who live next door.

The staff, including Lucia Panichella, have gotten to know the group over the last year.

Carlos Luzardo prepares coffee in his home in a Boston suburb. After it's ready, he brings it to his next door neighbor, who'd brought him food earlier.
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Carlos Luzardo strains the coffee grounds out of his freshly-prepared coffee in his home before sharing some coffee with a neighbor.

“I kind of made the mistake of thinking, ‘They've already had this time where people told them all that [they’d been promised] was not true,’” she said. “But I think that it still was really hard for them to grasp fully what had happened. What was true? What was not true? Could they believe what I was saying?”

Gradually, things have changed.

“Since I’ve been here,” Luzardo said, “I’ve been able to figure out many things, things I thought were impossible [to overcome]. These are not extraordinary [accomplishments], but, yes, I feel that I’ve moved forward a little bit.”

To be sure, not all of the 49 migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard have received as much support and attention as Luzardo. Many are still in Massachusetts, communicating through a group chat through WhatsApp.

Luzardo said he’s grateful for his small community, but he still has many complicated feelings.

Today, he’s clear about the fact that even though he’s received a great deal of help, it didn’t come from the people who promised it to him. Rather, he said, it’s in spite of them.

So when he looks around at his apartment and considers the relative stability he’s now enjoying, he thinks about everything he’s done in his life leading up to this point.

“When one does good deeds, they receive good deeds. I have that sense of faith: to do good and harvest good,” he said. “I think these are God’s ways. But I don’t know.”

He still struggles to trust people, and feels deeply lonely.

“I can’t believe that I am here, in the United States. I mean, I wake up [and I ask myself], ‘Am I really here?’” he said. “I don’t complain about my comforts, about the things here. But [I miss my] family.”

Marzouk, Luzardo’s lawyer, said she expects his work permit will be approved in the next few months. In the meantime, Luzardo plans to keep cutting hair for clients at his new kitchen table.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.